The Book of Strange New Things is the latest novel by Michel Faber, the widely acclaimed author of The Crimson Petal and the White and Under The Skin, and the author’s first full-length novel since The Fire Gospel, which he published in 2008. It is a wildly ambitious work of speculative fiction that Kirkus dubbed “a profoundly religious exploration of inner turmoil, and one sure to irk the Pat Robertson crowd in its insistence on the primacy of humanity.”
The novel is primarily about the emotional journey of Peter Leigh, a former drug addict and petty thief who—through the love of a good woman, his wife Beatrice—has become a man of profound faith who is faced with an extraordinary mission. Peter has been selected by the mysterious USIC corporation to travel to Oasis, a far-flung off-world colony, where he is to minister to the natives, who call themselves a variation of “Jesus Lover” and have taken to the Bible, which they dub “The Book of Strange New Things.” Meanwhile, back on Earth, things are coming apart as the world turns on itself with superstorms, earthquakes and other disasters.
We caught up with the author over email while he was at home in Scotland, where Faber collaborated on the novel with his wife, the artist Eva Youren, who passed away from a rare form of cancer while Faber was completing The Book of Strange New Things. With characteristic understatement, Faber writes in the novel’s acknowledgements, “My wife Eva was, as always, my closest and most insightful advisor and collaborator.”
In our starred review of The Book of Strange New Things, we asked, “What would Jesus do if he wore a space helmet?” What questions did you want to address in sending a missionary to another world?
There’s always a gulf between us and other people, even the ones we love most, and in my book, the vastness of space and the species divide make that gulf physical. Can we be truly intimate with anyone else when we are separated by such distance? That’s one of the questions the novel asks. There are many more.
Peter Leigh is, as he acknowledges, a flawed man with a checkered past. Why might an entity like USIC choose him for this role?
In most sci-fi stories, the personnel on alien outposts are stubborn individualists who are constantly arguing. In reality, it would be madness to send such people up there; they wouldn’t last a month. But you can’t have people who are too well-adjusted and connected either, because they wouldn’t be able to cope with the loneliness. USIC’s selection procedure singles out the candidates who are sufficiently damaged not to miss the consolations of life on Earth but not so damaged that they can’t get along. Peter passes the test. But maybe USIC bends the rules for him a little. His love for his wife makes him vulnerable.
What appealed to you about writing a story with strong science-fiction overtones, as you did with Under The Skin and this novel?
I admire authors like Alice Munro and Anne Tyler who can focus purely on human relationships in a domestic setting, but I couldn’t write stuff like that myself. I need elements of the outlandish, the enigmatic, the awesome (in the fullest sense of that word). I take the reader on an adventure to a place they haven’t been before, give them the thrills they might expect from genre fiction but try to avoid the pitfalls of genre—hokeyness, lack of depth, unconvincing relationships. I believe there are readers out there who can cope with a narrative that works on lots of different levels.
Does the writing of this kind of speculative novel differ from the process of writing historical fiction like The Crimson Petal and The White?
It’s the same spirit animating all my work. On the first page of The Crimson Petal, the reader arrives in 1870s London and is warned that they are “an alien from another time and place altogether.” All these narrative contexts I choose are different embodiments of displacement. Sugar is trying to figure out how she can survive in a scary, bewildering world. Peter and Bea are faced with the same challenge.
Why was it important that the Earth be imperiled while Peter is off-world saving souls?
Well, our Earth is imperiled. But the main point is that as humans, we tend to concentrate on the wrong challenges. Like trying to effect regime change in a foreign country instead of changing the way we relate to our own loved ones. When you and I are on our deathbeds, the failures that will haunt us won’t be that we didn’t kill or convert enough foreigners; it will be the opportunities we missed to cherish happiness in our own lives.
It’s been said that your own position on religion has become more moderate and indeed, tolerant, over time. How do you think The Book of Strange New Things will be perceived by readers along the religious spectrum?
Fundamentalists don’t read literature, so I don’t have to worry about how they’ll respond to my novel. As for people who are religious but also sympathetic, intelligent and humane, I would hope that they could find something of value in my book. I treat religion very respectfully. It’s a heartbreaking world out there, and we need something to help us through. For some people, that’s faith.
You have written this book during some extraordinarily trying times. Is there anything in your own experiences that makes its way into a book like this one?
My wife, Eva, whom I loved more than anything in the world, died of cancer while I was writing this novel. The novel is, on one level, a farewell to her. She knew that. She loved this book and helped me make it better, just as she helped me with all my others. It was always going to be a book about loss, but when she got sick, the loss became hugely amplified. It radiates out of the book like a sunset.
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.